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Rowling's grown-up novel shows wizardry of another kind

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Say what you want about J.K. Rowling. The woman may be as rich as Croesus, but she still has writerly ambition.

Her incredibly hyped new novel, which follows her seven-volume Harry Potter children's series, the most commercially successful books in publishing history, shows first and foremost an author who refuses to repeat herself. It also shows that that she is the real deal.

As the first wave of reviews has emphasized, The Casual Vacancy cannot be mistaken for children's fantasy literature. Its setting is contemporary, firmly in the land of Muggles, its mode naturalist, its themes adult, its language raw.

The F-word makes its first appearance on page 13, and it reappears throughout dozens of times. Even the C-word, in its peculiar British connotation, gets a workout.

The novel begins with a death that sets off a clockwork-like contraption of a plot -- it's authorial wizardry on a smaller scale than Potter's -- and Rowling dispatches two more important characters in the final pages.

In between, she portrays a panoply of social, domestic and psychological ills: poverty, drug abuse, alcoholism, physical abuse, cyber-bullying and self-mutilation, not to mention routine marital discord, class snobbery, bigotry and deceit.

The setting is a provincial English town, a burg Rowling calls Pagford, in the country's prosperous southwest, a place perhaps the size of Morden or Altona. Nearby is a bigger city, Yarvil, and between them lies a contentious low-end housing development called the Fields.

This becomes the novel's battleground. The petite bourgeoisie on the Pagford parish council want to off-load responsibilty for the slum onto Yarvil, and others want to rehabilitate it.

The character who dies in the first chapter, Barry Fairbrother, was the Pagford council's leading reformer. He had taken under his wing a disadvantaged teenage girl, from the Fields.

The "casual vacancy" left on council by Fairbrother's death provides the springboard for what follows. Several Pagfordians and their teenage children, all interconnected in the way of small-town life despite their differing social classes, come into conflict as a result of this initial event. The Internet plays a big role.

Of the 10 or 15 characters in Rowling's ensemble cast, just one could be described as contented, and that's because, as Rowling take pains to point out, he's smug, ignorant and self-satisfied.

If this sounds coarse and depressing, it's not meant to. Rowling displays as much empathy for her characters as she does disapproval of them. She also shows flashes of humour, though much of it dark.

Her portrayal of teenagers, especially the scorn with which they regard their imperfect parents, is arguably her strong suit, unsurprising from the author of Harry Potter. But she also notes their youthful hypocrisies.

"Many of them were devoid of workaday morals," a school guidance counsellor observes. "They lied, misbehaved and cheated routinely, and yet their fury when wrongly accused was limitless and genuine."

The Casual Vacancy's flavour, like that of the Potter novels, is intensely English. Teenagers don't kiss, they "snog." Councillors don't take bribes, they get "backhanders." Poor people collect not welfare but "benefits."

Which isn't to say Rowling is oblivious to North American culture. She uses the lyrics to American pop star Rihanna's Good Girl Gone Bad as a key motif. But sometimes her reach across the pond rings false, as when she writes that kids from the Fields underclass invaded Pagford schools "much as Mexicans streamed into Texas."

Generally, though, Rowling knows what she does best. Her plotting, as in the Potter series, is extremely clever and detailed. She avoids flowery language; her prose serves her story.

The point of view shifts among characters, and it is persuasive regardless of age, gender and social class. Where it's rare to read a literary novel where one of the main characters is not a thinly veiled version of the author, nobody in The Casual Vacancy is an obvious stand-in for Rowling herself.

The novel is not perfect. The final 50 pages get preachy. Rowling is a little too much the bleeding-heart liberal. She also casts her authorial eye too broadly. There is no single character, such as a Pip in Great Expectations or an Emma in Madame Bovary, on whom to focus reader sympathy.

In the end, though, this is solid middlebrow fiction. It echoes everything from TV's Coronation Street to The Wire. (In fact, it seems like a natural for a movie adaptation itself.)

On the literary scale, it calls to mind the social melodramas of Barbara Pym and Maeve Binchy and, higher up, the satire of Thornton Wilder and Jonathan Franzen.

It may bore those whose reading history consists of little beyond Harry Potter. But it should engage more experienced fiction lovers, particularly women in book clubs who will smile knowingly at its cynical depiction of child-rearing and sexual relationships. Rowling is clearly obsessed, by the way, with body image.

On the evidence presented here -- not that any more was needed -- Rowling proves her mettle. The Casual Vacancy will obviously be nowhere near as successful as Harry Potter, nor will it have its cultural impact.

But this will free her from insane expectations; she can start producing like a normal novelist. Her best work may be yet to come.


Morley Walker is the Free Press Books editor.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 6, 2012 J10

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